Soapbox: How to Stop the Music

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soapbox‘Wait! What?’ I hear you cry on reading that title. ‘Why do we want to stop the music?’ Then you remember that this blog talks quite a lot about the choral rehearsal and in that context actually you need to stop the music quite regularly so you can work on stuff. It’s very inefficient to carry on to the end every time, especially when the bit the singers need help with happens in bar 3.

The question arose in a Music Team training session about leading singers in small groups. We had discussed the two modes of leading the singing available, as a conductor, or as a member of the ensemble, and the parallels and differences between them. (Actually that could merit a blog post of its own one of these days.) We’d covered the process of starting the music in each mode, but hadn’t specifically addressed how to stop it.

The question arose specifically about how you stop the music when in the role of a singer leading from within the group. I guess it was more obvious what you do as a conductor as it’s something any choral singer will have witnessed many times in a rehearsal. The procedure for doing this as an ensemble member is to step forward into the shared space in front of the group before gesturing to stop. This serves to gather people’s attention, and signals that by breaking rank, as it were, you’re switching role from singer to leader.

But the key point that made me want to write about the question, and indeed to climb up on my soapbox about it, applies to musical leaders in any role, and it is this:

Always aim to stop the music at a phrase boundary.

The point of this is to let people get to the end of a syntactically whole musical statement, rather than cutting them off mid-flow. It’s on the same principle that in conversation it’s politer to wait until your interlocutor has finished their sentence before you reply than to interrupt them.

Of course, the music doesn’t always make this easy. In imitative textures where the phrases overlap, for example, as one part finishes another is usually already under way. Or in rhythmically propulsive pieces, someone will often have the role of maintaining momentum across phrase boundaries. But you can still work within the flow to find a more musically-coherent stopping point than just blasting across everyone as soon as you hear something that needs attention.

This matters for the impact it has on the singers. If you’re being continually interrupted, and can never finish your sentence, you start to feel inhibited. You don’t commit to expressing yourself because you never get the chance to do so fully. You’re always slightly braced against the expectation of being thwarted just as you were getting into the flow. If the stopping-points make musical sense, if you have a sense of the musical leader coordinating with you, and meeting you at the phrase boundary, you can relax into the experience more. You can trust that you can throw yourself into the music without being rudely bumped out again.

The other aspect of this worth mentioning is what communication ‘channel’ you use to stop the music. When I was observing conductors for my choral conducting book, I was surprised to see how many would interrupt their choirs by clapping over them – and this often went hand in hand with mid-phrase interruptions. You also sometimes see conductors calling out over the singers to stop them (though this is more often associated with adding instruction mid-flow).

When the choir is singing, they have ownership of the channel of sound. The leader has control of the visual channel. If you use an audible signal to give instruction while the music is sounding – either to stop or change something – again this is an intrusion on the singers. From a pragmatic point of view, it will be hard for them to hear and/or process information given aurally while they are broadcasting via sound, but it’s also a matter of respect.

In literate traditions, the practice may have arisen from working with singers whose heads are in the copies and who don’t see a stop signal. But, clapping over them simply trains them out of needing to watch. If instead they get used to seeing salient gestural information at phrase boundaries, they’ll develop the habit of visual awareness in relationship to musical structure. (Also, if you work with an accompanist, it’s very easy to collaborate with them to stop the music at structurally-meaningful moments, and your singers will learn to tune into that relationship too.)

So, the tl;dr of this post is:
How do I stop the music? Politely.

Good takes.

Little point: IIWY, I would reword the title of the post as "When and How..." because your point about phrase boundaries isn't an answer to "How".

I will say that I also dislike clapping... It's so jarring.
However, I do not feel I can fully agree that making sound while they are singing is inherently rude. By selecting you as the director, the chorus has told you that they've given a semblance of trust, that they know you have their best interests at heart. If I have a friend about to walk into a street, and I yell at them and order them to stop, I am not being rude, and if I am, I will take that over my friend dying; there are times in life worth ruffling a feather. In another comparison, sports coaches tend to make a lot of noise while their team is playing... And I've never heard anyone claim this was disrespectful. There is urgency involved in their work, and there is in ours, too.
To this end, I will say that I have had a lot of success using the word "pause". This appears to serve most of your concerns.
I like "pause" because it is a sound they can always interpret to mean the same thing. They should be trained to watch me, but it also doesn't hurt them to be trained to hear me, too. I love the idea of developing a consistent pause gesture (I definitely will try it and I have seen a symphony conductor who used setting his baton down for this very purpose), but as you mentioned there is absolutely that stage of music reading in many ensembles... If their vision (or lack thereof) precludes them seeing a stop gesture, a pause word can be useful... And I'm sure we would agree that stopping verbally is preferable if an ensemble had many visually impaired people. Though, arguing against myself, a sighted person could stand next to the impaired person and grab their elbow when the gesture is given. Still, the director could preclude this person risking singing after the stop by using a word instead of a gesture.
I know this is just semantics, but I absolutely counter that what you're talking about is a pause gesture and not a stop gesture.

Good stuff for all of us to think about! I love the phrase-boundary idea! I will be deliberate with this in the future because I am sure that there were times where I only did it on accident. :)

Thanks for your thoughtful comment Michael. Good point about the title!

I think the difference with sports coaches is that calling over people doing physical activity isn't competing in the same communication 'channel' (to adopt the word that nonverbal communication studies uses for different forms of communication). The problem with both choir and conductor using the verbal channel at once isn't just manners, it's about ability to communicate at all - two verbal streams is more than the brain can process at once. (Source for this assertion: about 8 mins in)

If anything is life and death in rehearsal, for sure go ahead and interrupt. In my teens I once waited until I got to the end of a phrase in a singing lesson before asking if I could sit down because I was going to faint, but really it would have been better to stop early!

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